Glossy, competent made-for-TV noir, highlighted by Nicol Williamson's snappy, amusing turn. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Passion Flower, the 1986 CBS made-for-TV movie starring Bruce Boxleitner, Barbara Hershey, Nicol Williamson, John Waters, and Dick O'Neill. Anybody who's seen even just a handful of noirs is going to know where Passion Flower is headed, while the tame sex is strictly "1986 network safe." However, the script is full of punchy, fun stingers, with veteran helmer Joseph Sargent fashioning the familiar story elements into an enjoyable, unpretentious meller. No extras for this good-looking fullscreen transfer.
Fabulously wealthy Julia Gaitland (Barbara Hershey) is having a nightmare. She's a little girl again, watching a Singapore parade with her "businessman" father, Albert Coskin (Nicol Williamson), and her beautiful, loving mother, when Coskin spies two assassins moving in to strike. Deftly releasing a hidden revolver, Coskin dispatches the two killers, but not before his wife is fatally struck down, causing little Julia to strike her father over and over again. When she wakes, screaming, she gets no comfort from her nasty, supercilious husband, Leslie Gaitland (John Waters). Arriving at her father's palatial office, she's outraged to learn he's closed her San Francisco office, preferring to keep his fine antiques import/export business firmly within his Asian sphere. Perhaps things will be different when he's dead, she offers, a declaration of parental fidelity that gets a nasty chuckle from Pops. Enter investment banker Larry Janson, of U.S. Pacific Bank. His boss, Martin Churit (Dick O'Neill) sees the way frustrated Julia is watching handsome Larry, and knowing how things work among the "colonials" in Singapore--bed-hopping being their favorite sport--he advises Larry that getting to Julia is the only way to get to Albert Coskin. Rumor has it that Coskin, a self-made billionaire with, to put it nicely, rough-and-tumble beginnings, is in need of a loan due to expensive oil drilling; if Larry could secure that loan, then U.S. Pacific Bank is in the gravy. However, Larry's affair with Julia complicates things enormously with the possessive, unpredictable Coskin, leading Larry into dangerous waters that are way over his head.
Passion Flower didn't ring any bells for me when I first put it in, so I doubt I saw it when it first aired on CBS back in January of 1986 (the title probably put me off...). Seeing that title today, and that Harlequin Romance cover shot of Hershey and Boxleitner on the front of the DVD case (it's hotter than anything actually in the movie), I had the same reaction I probably would have had back in '86, if I saw a Passion Flower promo: a sudsy, pseudo-steamy romance for women only (my tastes in full-blown melodrama have matured considerably since I was 20; LMN is now one of my favorite channels...). Had I known, though, in those pre-internet days, that Joe Sargent was helming Passion Flower, I would have made a point to check it out (unless you read the trades back then, you had to look fast in the credits of whatever you were watching to see who was working). And sure enough, Passion Flower sports the kind of clean lines and no bullsh*t approach that mark so much of Sargent's work. With big-screen features and TV movies to his credit like Colossus: The Forbin Project, Tribes (when's that coming out on DVD?), The Marcus-Nelson Murders, White Lightning, The Night That Panicked America, and the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three--for my money the best straight action movie of the 1970s--it's no wonder his rep keeps rising.
Scripted by Richard A. Guttman (Backdoor to Hell, A Touch of Scandal), Passion Flower's classic "black widow" noir structure won't fool anyone familiar with the genre, with plenty of fun foreshadowing in the dialogue to help along the uninitiated ("I'll never be completely satisfied, darling...it's not in my nature," Hershey cryptically reassures lover Boxleitner). Guttman, however, keeps our attention diverted with a nicely tangled plot line involving Boxleitner's growing complicity in Williamson's smuggling/banking/gun running frauds that compliments the standard love triangle (or is it a square...factoring in Williamson?). Even better, Guttman comes up with numerous quotable lines that highlight scripting that's fairly clever for this kind of made-for-TV outing. Although Williamson receives the best one-liners, Hershey gets gems like, "I'm not impressed with people who have good manners giving in to bullies," and, "My father taught me to never be unnecessarily polite." Certainly in terms of exploiting some nervier noir tangents, more could have been done to explore Passion Flower's sublimated sense that Williamson wants his daughter (his backseat limo lecture on women liking men who control them completely--followed by squeezing his daughter's hand--is about it here), but we're talking 1986 "Big Three" network standards and practices, and that's all we're going to get on that subject. Hershey's and Boxleitner's sex scenes--or more correctly. the preludes and aftermaths--also suffer from the times in which they were filmed; they wouldn't rate a "G" today (have you seen what's going on over at Lifetime?), although viewers who want "discreet passion" rather than "filth" will like all the romance novel iconography on display (you don't get more romantic, I suppose, than shirtless Boxleitner wearing a sarong while grappling with Hershey in the pouring rain).
As for the lead performances, Boxleitner may get top billing...but he's definitely odd man out here. If Passion Flower is shooting for a Body Heat / Black Widow type of retro-noir carnality, it's going to have a hard time getting there off genial Boxleitner's too clean-cut, too innately decent vibe. My understanding is that Boxleitner is the son of a CPA.... Exactly. Crazy, whacked-out-of-her-skull Hershey needs someone to claw and tear at; she needs an actor who looks like he's really getting off, not just because he's breaking the rules of his little would-be "colonial" enclave, but also because he's banging bitchy, screwball Barbara Hershey--and Boxleitner, to be fair, doesn't seem that into it, frankly. You can tell she's rarin' to go in a part that's perfectly suited to her innate, trembling eroticism (have you seen her in A Killing in a Small Town? Jesus she's remarkable), but she can't get any traction with Eagle Scout Boxleitner (just listen to how he delivers, "The one thing I can't live without is your passion!" It's the comedy surprise of 1986). Luckily, Nicol Williamson appears out of nowhere in this glossy noir romancer and delivers a perfectly hilarious turn as an evil, murderous smuggler/warlord masquerading as the archest, snidest British "colonialist" you've ever seen. Whether waspishly spitting out, "Get your fingers off the table," to a minion who has the nerve to touch his billiard table, or advising a clueless Boxleitner with, "People do get infected by self-belief; it's frequently fatal...with a little help from one's friends," Williamson effortlessly steals every scene he's in, modulating that murderously mellifluous voice of his to just this side of camp to keep us in the game while we're laughing along. With Hershey's efforts frustrated by a awkward, preppy Boxleitner, Williamson's overripe turn is the best thing in the already competent Passion Flower, topping off this entertaining, picturesque noir quite nicely, indeed.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.